What Is Denial Psychology & How To Address It
By Nadia Khan
Updated August 29, 2019
Reviewer Patricia Corlew , LMFT, LPC,
No matter who we are, over time we have developed different coping mechanisms to help us to deal with a variety of circumstances and issues in our lives. These coping mechanisms can be healthy or unhealthy. When a coping mechanism is unhealthy, it can make it difficult for us to address our real issues or make desired changes in our behavior.
Denial psychology is built around understanding the coping mechanism of denial and how it impacts us and our relationships. According to Merriam-Webster, denial psychology is a "defense mechanism in which confrontation with a personal problem or with reality is avoided by denying the existence of the problem or reality."
To understand how denial is used as a defense mechanism and its impact, let's start by looking at what defense mechanism are and how we use them in our everyday lives.
When it comes to protecting ourselves psychologically, defense mechanisms provide an unconscious means to keep us from becoming overwhelmingly anxious as a result of unacceptable thoughts or feelings. This process often means that we are trying to protect ourselves from feelings of shame or guilt, although these defense mechanisms can arise when we feel threatened.
Part of the reason that we have developed these unconscious defense mechanisms is to address the contradictions found in our own lives. For instance, we all have reality, society, and biology pulling at us. Add to that our intimate relationships with others, plus our relationship with ourselves, and you have a lot of forces at work in your life influencing your thoughts, feelings, and actions.
With all these demands upon us, it can be easy to feel threatened or overwhelmed, essentially anxiety. As a result, our bodies and brains have come up with these defense mechanisms to help us to address the anxiety, and any feelings that might be associated with it, including guilt.
Denial - A Primary Defense Mechanism
Denial is the primary defense mechanism that has been identified in psychology. It often involves blocking external events from our conscious awareness. Essentially, if a situation is too much for us to handle, then we simply refuse to experience it at all. That does not make the facts or reality of the situation go away but allows us to pretend that it isn't real and therefore, doesn't have any impact on us.
While using denial might reduce your anxiety for a short period, the reality is that it is not an effective way to deal with a situation in the long-term. Eventually, the reality of the circumstances kicks in, and then you may turn to blame to address your feelings of anxiety or guilt, trying to put the responsibility for your feelings onto someone else.
However, not dealing with situations or assigning blame can have a negative impact on your relationships in the long run, so denial can prove to be an unhealthy defense mechanism over time.
How Denial Negatively Impacts Your Choices
When we use denial as a defense mechanism, it can easily become a way of lying to ourselves about the facts of a set of circumstances or our experiences. While it might seem easier in the moment, the reality is that it can be harmful to deny the truth and can cause us to develop maladaptive behaviors and unhealthy relationships.
However, denial can be a healthy option to protect ourselves during tough situations. Only when denial causes you to engage in unhealthy behaviors or allows a bad situation or relationship to continue can it be harmful.
Unfortunately, most of us don't realize that we are in a state of denial until the situation has gotten out of control. If we find ourselves dealing with the same types of bad circumstances over and over again, then there is a good chance that we are in a state of denial in some way or another. Thus, over time, we could find ourselves dealing with the same types of bad relationships or making choices that put us in a bad situation.
Denial will also stop us from taking responsibility for our choices, leaving us free to continue to blame others while making those same bad choices repeatedly. However, it can reach a point where we want something healthier for ourselves, and that means getting honest about our thoughts, feelings, actions, and choices.
Recognizing And Addressing Denial
While denial can have a negative impact on our lives, it can be hard to recognize when we are slipping into a state of denial. Here are some ways to be aware of when you are using denial as a defense mechanism.
Recurring Negative Themes
Look for themes in your life. Are you finding yourself in a series of harmful or unhealthy relationships? Do you have to deal with the negative consequences of addictive behavior on a regular basis? These questions can help us to take a hard look at the choices we are making and show us how we might be creating an environment that can foster the negative consequences we don't want.
We could also be fooling ourselves into thinking that we are helpless when the reality is that we are anything but helpless. If you notice this type of pattern, then it might be worth consulting with a licensed therapist or certified counselor to address your choices and your denial of the situation and your behavior patterns.
Blaming Groups of People
Have you ever used the phrase, "All [insert adjective] people are [negative quality]"? Chances are, you have. The problem with a phrase like this is that it allows us to deny our role in a given situation. As much as we would like to think the world revolves around us, the reality is that it is unlikely that the whole world got together to conspire against you and your relationships.
Therefore, it might be time to get honest with yourself and ask what you have contributed to the situation. Your actions do have weight, and they impact you, as well as others. Blame just allows you to shift the responsibility for your actions to someone else or a group of individuals.
Take note of when you use superlative language to describe the cause of your circumstances. When you do so, it can be that you are denying or ignoring how your actions are impacting your circumstances. After all, the one common denominator in all your dilemmas and difficult situations is you.
Consult Others Who Think Differently
When you are surrounded by individuals who think like you, it can be easy to deny reality, because your inner social circle is likely reinforcing your denial because they see things just as you do.
Be open to someone who thinks differently than you do. Allow them to challenge your thinking on various issues and be willing to examine your assumptions and opinions. You might find yourself asking different questions regarding how you view a situation or facts you might have been ignoring because they didn't fit into your version of that particular reality.
Think of it regarding politics. If you have a more liberal bent to your thinking, it might be worth it to develop a friendship with a conservative-minded individual, who can challenge your thinking and help you to look at the world differently.
Treating Denial In Your Therapy
Depending on your level of denial, your therapist may use different techniques to help you address it. In most therapy settings, denial is seen as an obstacle to moving forward healthily or making any significant progress.
Working with a licensed therapist, you will soon realize that your therapist is going to determine if you are emotionally ready to address your denial. Once they help you to confront it, then they will be able to assist you in interpreting the reasons behind your use of denial.
Working with a therapist, you can also develop behaviors and coping mechanisms that are going to provide a healthier option for you to address the circumstances of your life. Additionally, you will gain valuable insight into your thought processes and behaviors to create new ways to address them.
One of the biggest areas where you can see this type of work being done is with individuals suffering from addiction. Denial is often a key part of their ability to maintain their addiction, but once they can recognize that addiction exists, it can now be addressed with new habits and coping mechanisms.
If you believe that you are in a pattern of denial, then it might be worth taking the time to address it with a licensed therapist or certified counselor. Working with BetterHelp, you can find a licensed online therapist familiar with denial psychology to help you address your denial and develop healthier, more effective ways to handle anxiety, guilt, or stress.